THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2010

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Left an orphan in 1920s Munich, 18-year-old Walter Schmidt hops a freighter and lands in New Orleans, the Land of Oz, seductively perfumed by flowers, fresh-baked beignets, and bathtub gin. What’s not to love, thinks the newcomer, who promptly becomes more American than the Americans, a fan of jazz and baseball and Hollywood movies.

Fifteen years or so go by. With the world at war again, Walter marries a young widow, Nadine. She can’t quite forget her first husband, a soldier killed in the Pacific. Nor, as it turns out, can she forget Walter’s duplicitous best friend. When Walter catches them in bed together, his life is flipped inside out once more. He wants to cling to what he’s got. But he’s also tempted to start all over. In an atmosphere of what can best be described as screwball melodrama, he has to figure out how to do both at the same time.

“My Bright Midnight” is most notable for its portrait of a blowzy bygone New Orleans. The plot within this gaudy setting doesn’t pull itself together till the end, too tardy a gesture to be entirely satisfying.

Even if he does say so himself, Larry McMurtry has been associated with some of the more memorable films of the past half-century: “Hud,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and the TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” Not that this self-proclaimed Texas country boy ever set out to win fame and fortune in Hollywood, insists McMurtry in aw-shucks tones that fortunately don’t persist for long. McMurtry in self-effacing mode would be as sad as it is unconvincing.

In these miniature reflections, the author, antiquarian, and screenwriter recalls some of his movieland experiences, satirizing while flaunting his red-carpet appearances, and offering fond but not uniformly flattering anecdotes about famous friends such as Diane Keaton, director Peter Bogdanovich, and super-agent Swifty Lazar.

McMurtry notes that readers have complained about the skimpiness of his recent books. They’re not skimpy, he argues, they’re concise, though perhaps after churning out dozens of novels, memoirs, and screenplays over the years, he’s simply run out of material. These latest reminiscences consist, in effect, of the pocket change that fell between the cushions of his previous writings on his favorite subject.

The sheer foreignness of China becomes the theme of this tripartite novel by Bi Feiyu, a journalist, poet, film writer, and novelist. It follows three daughters of a rural party official as, one by one, they realize that they must make lives for themselves someplace other than home.

The most successfully realized portrait is that of Yumi, the eldest daughter, restrained and responsible, aware of the obligations and respect her position in the family hierarchy entails. The decisions she makes and the results they bear clearly develop from her character as the author renders it. More generically evoked is the family beauty, Yuxiu, who believes that her looks guarantee a charmed life. Of course she is wrong. Just as their converging stories reach a dramatic crisis, the author drops them and turns to the youngest, Yuyang, the first to go away to school and to experience the complications of urban modernity.

Yumi’s story in particular imparts the flavor of a time and place alien to us, the waning years of the Cultural Revolution in a crude farming village. Much else about “Three Sisters” remains out of our reach.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at ahellerst@gmail.com.

MY BRIGHT MIDNIGHT By Josh Russell

Louisiana State University, 138 pp., paperback, $18.95

HOLLYWOOD: A Third Memoir By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster, 160 pp., $24

THREE SISTERS By Bi Feiyu

Translated, from the Chinese,

by Howard Goldblatt

and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

288 pp., $24